Harry Belafonte, Jr. is a humanitarian and political activist known best as a singer from the 1950’s who started the craze for Caribbean inflected music. “The Banana Boat Song” became his signature song. Born in New York City of a Jamaican mother and Martiniquan father in 1927, Belafonte was sent to live with his grandmother in Jamaica from 1932 to 1940. When he returned, he worked as an assistant janitor in a building. He was given two theatre tickets from one of the tenants and subsequently took acting classes in New York. He took classes with Marlon Brando and Sidney Poitier and performed at the American Negro Theatre.
His first musical release “Matilda” in 1953 became a hit and the album “Calypso” sold over 1 million copies in 1956. Calypso style music then became the rage with Belafonte being crowned the King of Calypso. He continued to perform throughout the late 50’s and 60’s but his career took a downturn when the Beatles were introduced in the States and changed the face of music.
Belafonte became a political activist early on in his career. He used some of his success to support his political and humanitarian activities. One of them was in the support of the civil rights movement. Because of his foreign roots, he was still racially discriminated in some parts of the United States, particularly the southern States where he refused to perform. Belafonte became close friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. and supported King’s family at this time since King was only receiving a pastor’s wage of $8000 per year.
In the 70’s and 80’s, Belafonte continued performing in other countries outside of the United States, where he was still popular. He received a record deal with EMI and released “Paradise in Gazankulu.” This became his last studio album and it focused on South African apartheid policy at that time which he was against with. Belafonte worked many of his humanitarian efforts into his performances. Africa was his focus during the 80’s, he was partly responsible for organizing the “We are the World” effort for Africa as well as singing for Live Aid. In 1987, he became the UNICEF goodwill ambassador. He performed in another concert for Africa which raised additional funds and then launched a campaign for the awareness of Rwanda. In 2001, he supported the campaign against AIDS in Africa and was award the Bishop John T. Walker Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award for his efforts. Belafonte has been UNICEF ambassador for many years highlighting the children of Africa for many of his efforts.
Belafonte, using his musical platform, has been known for saying controversial statements on US foreign policy. He has been particularly opposed to the administration of George W. Bush, including Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, both American African, and aligning them to the house slaves of Civil War days.
Belafonte has been married three times. He has four children and currently resides in New York City with third wife Pamela.